On Leonard Cohen, and music before words

This is in danger of becoming a music blog, but if people WILL keep dying and/or enjoying spectacular critical revivals then that’s the way it’ll have to be. The world has lost a genuine great with Leonard Cohen’s death. In some way the situation is very dissimilar to Bowie’s death, in that it had seemed to be not unanticipated in the media. The Canadian’s old age had been repeatedly cited for the past year or so, despite the fact that he wasn’t particularly that old in the big scheme of things. Early eighties, wasn’t it? Too soon.

So given that I’m (again) hardly first off the mark to articulate my thoughts, what can I say about Leonard Cohen that hasn’t already been said a billion times elsewhere?

This. Forget Cohen the poet. Cast aside your critical analysis of those words, and appreciate the fact that this most literary of intellectuals from Montreal created some of the greatest popular music records ever made.

I was privileged to have a short chat with singer and musician Pete Atkin a couple of weeks ago (he has a book out which I’ve heard is utterly great). Pete wrote the music for, and performed, Clive James’s lyrics, and one of the topics we discussed was the fact that music criticism focuses 99 per cent on the words; possibly 99.9 per cent for certain genres. Because, of course, it’s easier and more natural to write about words.

Whereas, of course, music doesn’t work like that. I wrote a while back about how I loved Georges Brassens, despite the fact that my comprehension of French is diabolical.

So yes. Listen to the records. Listen to them.

To rewind, it became firmly established, after his initial burst of hipster popularity, that Leonard Cohen was miserable; that his was music to slit your wrists to; the Godfather of Gloom; that he couldn’t sing, yadda yadda yadda. In one sense, Cohen had become one of those jokes that people did, not too far removed from ‘in the dark, you can only see their eyes and teeth’: not witty, nor funny, nor original, nor intelligent in any sense; just a punchline that remained a punchline because somebody, somewhere had decided that it was one. That was the seventies for you.

Perhaps at that point his most analysed songs tended to be the ‘growers’. ‘Chelsea Hotel’ for instance – it’s lovely, but not the most accessible production in his catalogue. And the masterpiece album that launched his decade, ‘Songs of Love and Hate,’ opened with the ferocious and doomy intensity of ‘Avalanche’ – a magnificent piece of music unlikely to convert a sceptic. Leonard Cohen’s own – ummm – mixed feelings about his collaboration with Phil Spector possibly coloured the reception of his most conventionally ‘pop’ album.

But that might be over-analysing things. I think people had just made their minds up.

Sonically, Cohen’s seventies albums are astonishing. His stock approach was to take a few chords on a nylon-stringed guitar, mix his own voice with a couple of great female singers having instructed them to sound ‘beautiful’, then augment where necessary with pared-back instrumentation. In this, he created a body of work that was the easiest of easy listening, in the truest possible sense. One should be able to say that without howls of outrage from pseuds; it doesn’t diminish from the songs’ weight. Works like ‘Why Don’t You Try’; ‘Joan of Arc’; ‘The Window’; ‘The Guests’ – these should have been Radio 2 staples; in a different world he could have been performing them as the musical interlude on The Two Ronnies. *Adopts posh Scots voice* “Ladies and Gentlemen – Mr. Leonard Cohen.”

Then you hear snatches of his live performance, or the studio recordings where he lets that bellow really rip. And again, if you’ve not been listening, it’s a revelation. Post-Cohen-revival, we’re kind of used to the concept of Leonard Cohen as a showman, but when ‘Sing Another Song Boys’ hits the coda, there’s a moment of open-mouthed: ‘bloody hell – this guy can *rock*’ And no words to be heard – just la-la-laaahs, blasting out at the Isle of Wight festival audience. ‘Live Songs’ may as well be the Rolling Stones in its spirit. ‘Is This What you Wanted?’ is barely-reined-back thunder.

So: Phil Spector. When I was a little boy, ‘Death of a Ladies’ Man’ was the only tape we had in the car. Being puritans at heart, and a tape player in the car being unimaginable luxury and indulgence not really for the likes of us, we didn’t listen to this tape that often. Like a cassette-based front room, it was reserved for ‘best’, this being the long drive to our annual fortnight in the West Country. I’ll therefore never be able to disassociate the simple ‘ting!’ that opens the album with the utter joy that the outset of this journey represented. ‘As the misssttt…’ they sing, above the Wall of Sound – it’s anything but misty, but I am misty-eyed recalling it. ‘Death…’ is the Cohen album for people who don’t like Cohen, but side A and most of side B of that tape surely can’t be described as anything other than one of the most utterly fucking exciting twenty or so minutes of music of 1977 – it hits you between the eyes with its major sevenths and spoken vocals and however many hundreds of drummers that Spector multi-tracked for the fill that leads to the climax of that sax solo.

But I can’t possibly get that across. Because the words are much easier to write about.

So just forget them for a bit, and forget the novels and poetry awards and zen-calm and magnetism and humanity and general Leonard Cohen-ness. Go listen to his stuff as you would any other pop group, and see what you think.

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